Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters freed from Myanmar prison
HONG KONG — Two Pulitzer-winning Reuters journalists held in Myanmar for more than 500 days for their coverage of the crackdown on Rohingya Muslims were freed from jail Tuesday, ending a prolonged detention that has tainted Myanmar and its Nobel laureate civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of an annual amnesty that has freed thousands of prisoners since last month. An additional 6,000 people were released Tuesday.
Myanmar officials have no immediate reason for the release of the two journalists, who had exhausted all their legal options after Myanmar’s highest court rejected their appeal late last month.
Suu Kyi – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize – has also been under significant pressure from Vice President Mike Pence and others to intervene in the case and free the journalists. But she had defended their detention and said they were not jailed for their reporting but because they were convicted of breaking colonial-era state secrecy laws.
The two journalists were accused of possessing secret documents but were widely believed to have been set up in December 2017. In September they were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The journalists and their lawyers have insisted that they were merely doing their job as reporters, never had the chance to read the documents they were given before they were detained and had not been planning to share state secrets.
The pair have received multiple honors and awards for their investigation into a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, the story they were working on at the time of their arrest. These include the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, which they won in April.
Their Reuters colleagues posted video and photos of the two journalists Tuesday walking out of the gates of Yangon’s Insein prison, smiling and carrying a single bag each with their few possessions. They were mobbed by photographers and onlookers upon their exit.
“I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues,” Wa Lone said in brief comments upon his release, thanking everyone around the world who helped secure his freedom. “I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”
The 33-year-old is a father of a baby girl who was born while he was jailed. Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, also has a young daughter. Their wives had repeatedly appealed to the Myanmar government to pardon their husbands.
The two journalists have become a symbol of Myanmar’s fading democratic hopes and promise under its Nobel laureate civilian leader. Both men grew up under Myanmar’s dark days of military rule and worked as reporters during the country’s dramatic transition to a largely civilian-led government.
Suu Kyi’s government was widely expected to end the arbitrary detention of government critics, free political prisoners and continue a media renaissance that the country was experiencing at the time.
Yet her government has instead clamped down on free expression and continued to use archaic and widely criticized laws to imprison people like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. When they were first arrested, they were held incommunicado, without access to their family or colleagues.
Their prosecution then dragged on for months. Prosecution witnesses shared absurd details during the trial; one police officer said he burned his own notes from the time of the arrests, and another kept checking notes written on his hand as he testified.
Domestically, however, there has been less sympathy for the pair. The Rohingya crisis has largely divided Myanmar and the international community, with an overwhelming majority within the country believing that the crackdown – which has sent more than 800,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh in one of the world’s largest refugee crises – was justified.
Many in Myanmar took to social media declaring the two journalists traitors for exposing the massacre, and some suggested they were paid to make Myanmar look bad. Their families have been subject to harassment and threats.
It was the third such amnesty marking the traditional new year holiday that took place last month.
Their release was immediately and widely celebrated across the world. Reuters editor in chief Stephen J. Adler said in a statement that the news agency is “enormously pleased” that the two have been freed.
“Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return,” he said.
In a tweet, Pence hailed the development as “Great news!”
The two journalists “were jailed for doing their job reporting on atrocities committed against the Rohingya people. Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!” Pence wrote.
President Donald Trump, who has not publicly commented on the case, had not offered an immediate reaction. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were among the journalists honored in Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year edition in a rebuke of the hostile treatment of reporters across the globe, including in the United States.
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of PEN America, a nonprofit that defends the advancement of literature and human rights, said the journalists have proved their “courage and fortitude.”
These are “young men who have now proven themselves as world-renowned journalists,” she said. “They have long and important careers ahead of them carrying out the essential work of holding Myanmar’s fledgling new government accountable and keeping their country’s deserving public informed. They should now be allowed to return to their work without hindrance.”
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a nonprofit that tracks and assists political prisoners held in Myanmar, estimates that 48 political prisoners are jailed in the country. Hundreds of others have been charged and are facing trial in Myanmar and abroad.
“Everyone should be released,” lawyer Than Zaw Aung said. “There are still some prisoners that have been jailed because of the freedom of expression. My own desire is for all of them to be freed.”
The journalists’ release Tuesday was unexpected and remained uncertain until the moment they were first seen walking toward the prison gates. Their families were not there, waiting for news of their release at the Reuters office in Yangon.
Chit Su Win, Kyaw Soe Oo’s wife, said she chose not to make the trip because her hopes for his release had been raised and dashed many times.
“I would not be able to stand the situation if we came [to the prison] to welcome them, but they were not released,” she said by phone. “I couldn’t even speak for a while when [Kyaw Soe Oo] called me telling me that he was released.”
When she told their young daughter that her father had been freed, the girl started dancing, Chit Su Win said.